Deadwood, an historical western drama detailing the rapid expansion of Deadwood, South Dakota from camp to town between 1876 and 1877, aired a total of 36 episodes across three seasons on HBO from 2004-2006. There was rampant violence and nudity, record-setting usage of era-innacurate curse words, opium addiction, competing brothels, a spunky prostitute named Trixie, and a not small supply of Shakespearean soliloquies, sometimes delivered by Ian McShane’s character to the severed, decaying, bagged head of a Native American. In other word, it….was….AWESOME. However, it was also very expensive to make. So, after the third season HBO announced its cancellation while also indicating they would produce a series of two-hour television movies to allow creator David Milch the time to wrap up the story. For such a critically and viewer-adored show, this was shocking, but the punch hurt a little less with news of the wrap-up movies.
Yeah, those movies never happened, and all involved parties agree they are probably never going to happen. But what storylines were they going to explore? Surely, Milch had some ideas. Well, maybe the best time to ask him about it was not so soon after the show had been canceled that he, a long-time alcoholic, cracks that he may later that day have his first taste of alcohol in 10 years. Also, probably not the best idea to force him to walk around the show’s now completely empty cow-town-sized set while despondently pointing at buildings and lamenting how that’s where the characters he created used to live. But that’s completely what you get with “The Meaning of Endings: David Milch on The Conclusion of Endings”, a special feature found on the complete series DVD and Blu-Ray box-sets of the show. While Milch’s personal anguish on display is somewhat captivating and his opining on the nature of endings characteristically professorial and philosophical, he does reveal a little about what might have been (or still could be if you are really, really optimistic):
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane)
The third and final season saw Swearengen’s power and influence in the town being usurped by George Hearst. Any continuation of the show would have furthered the deterioration of Swearengen’s influence, this time inspired by the true life history of his brothel, The Gem, which burnt to the ground in 1879 as a result of a town-wide fire started by some “idiot with fireworks.” Milch indicates in their telling Swearengen would re-build The Gem as he did in real life, but his once mighty reach in the town would never return. In response, his self-destructive habits with booze and violence would have been amplified. Also, in addition to the fire the entire town, Swearengen included, would have been affected by a flood at some point.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Sol Star (John Hawkes), Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), Martha Bullock (Anna Gun)
Milch indicates the show would have reflected how the real life Bullock became deputy U.S. Marshall and along with business partner Sol Star became an important figure for the entire South Dakota territory. As for the show’s entirely fictionalized love triangle between Bullock, his ever-patient wife Martha, and Alma Garrett, Milch pulls back, “I wouldn’t hazard to much of a detailed explanation of what the outcome would have been. I find all of this infinitely depressing, I must say.” Though not providing any specifics, Milch indicates the status would have likely remained mostly quo with Bullock’s “love of his life” remaining Alma Garrett.
E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson)
“They say after a nuclear attack we can start over with the cockroaches. With all the changes the town went through, Farnum stuck around and thrived” – Milch.
So, basically, more of the same sniveling coward with impeccably brilliant line readings. Milch also indicates although Farnum’s hotel was purchased by Hearst in season three it would be treated as belonging to Farnum post-Hearst’s exit from the town and therefore the show.
Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), “Calamity” Jane Cannary (Robin Weigert)
“Utter didn’t stay a whole lot longer. He lived a twilight existence in the aftermath of [Wild Bill] Hicock’s death. Although a wonderful character for storytelling.”-Milch
“Jane who was in and out of camp at this time bought the burial plot next to Hickock’s and croaked about 20 years later” – Milch
These are not necessarily indications of storylines the show may have explored, but observations from Milch as to what became of the historical figures. The show was not exactly slavish to adhering to the historical facts. As such, it is entirely possible they would have kept Charlie Utter around just to see more of his awkward courting of Miss Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), but Milch does not say one way or another.
Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox)
“I wanted to bring in a guy who came into town as a medicine man, a physician, and Cochran [Dourif] hated him. He sold spirits to the people […] which was just booze […] he also had an Indian (really a black man named Johnson) with him to administer traditional medicine, which was also just booze. The medicine man was John D. Rockefeller’s father, who was a bigamist psychopath who would spend six months every year in the Deadwood hills as Dr. Levingston. The storyline we did in the third season where Langrishe adjust Heart’s back that was originally a story we had planned for Dr. Levingston Rockefeller lived in constant dread of the revelation of his father’s nevarious carrying-on.”-Milch
Basically, season three had George Hearst, father of 20th century titan William Randolph Hearst, at its center. A season four could have had William Levingston, aka William Rockefeller, Sr., father of 20th century titan John D. Rockefeller, somewhere close to its center. Historically, the events Milch discusses happened around the same time that John D. Rockefeller was turning Standard Oil into a monopoly. He also references the “yellow journalists” sniffing around to see if they could find Rockefeller’s shameful father, who was thought to be parading as a doctor somewhere in the frontier. Eventually, when Rockefeller became the richest man in the world Joseph Pulitzer offered a reward to any journalist who could verify the rumors of Rockefeller’s snakeoils salesman father. That last bit may have happened a little too far down the road to have made its way into the show, though.
Aunt Lou (Cleo King)
Milch indicates that Aunt Lou was based upon an historical figure, and that the show only existed long enough to see her mostly in her subservient role to George Hearst and her suffering in the aftermath of her son’s death. He hints they may have kept Aunt Lou in town to be explored further. Along with the Chinese district characters, she served the function of showing the story of white men fighting other white men for more power from the point of view of minorities.
Based upon the “Making of Season 2 Finale” special feature from, well, the second season, Milch appears to have developed an outline for each season and then improvised from there with the assistance of his writers. As such, many of the ideas above are rough outlines at best as opposed to concrete details on what was going to happen. Furthermore, Milch advises at the outset that at the time of recording the possibility of feature films still existed so he wanted more to forecast ideas than go into specifics. However, with those movies probably dead forever the above might be the best we can get.
HBO was in the news last week when it was revealed Game of Thrones was not technically guaranteed a fourth season. Fans of the show were worried or sarcastically rolling their eyes in response to those who were worried because of course the show will be renewed. Heck, it hasn’t even started airing its third season yet. HBO doesn’t just randomly cancel acclaimed but expensive shows anymore (see: Carnivale, Rome, Deadwood). However, watching a depressed David Milch forced to walk the empty streets of his beloved creation is a reminder that you really never know for sure.
Shows canceled before their time often promise some sort of continuation film, but it usually doesn’t happen. When it does maybe it shouldn’t have (see: Dead Like Me: Life After Death, Strangers With Candy) because they can’t all be Serenity. However, personally, I think in Deadwood‘s case that Rockefeller thing could have been awesome!
- Will HBO’s Deadwood ever get a proper ending? (phillyburbs.com)
- Milch’s End to ‘Deadwood’: I Don’t Believe in Endings (blog.courant.com)
- Missed In History: The Real Al Swearengen Part 2 (blogs.howstuffworks.com)